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Current Affairs 21 May 2024

  1. UNODC Releases World Wildlife Crime Report 2024
  2. Supreme Court Limits Enforcement Directorate’s Arrest Powers Under PMLA
  3. UK PM Proposes Changes to Graduate Route Visa Scheme
  4. RBI Tightens Oversight on Gold Loan Lenders and NBFCs
  5. Project Astra
  6. Synuclein Alpha (SNCA) Proteins
  7. First Sea Anemone Bleaching Event Observed in Lakshadweep Islands


Context:

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published the third edition of the World Wildlife Crime Report 2024. This report offers a comprehensive analysis of the illegal wildlife trade, covering the period from 2015 to 2021.

Relevance:

GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Key Highlights of the Report
  2. Factors Responsible for Wildlife Crime
  3. Measures to Effectively Reduce Wildlife Crime

Key Highlights of the Report

Most Affected by Illegal Wildlife Trade (2015-2021)

Animals:

  • Rhino and cedar were the most affected.
  • Rhino Horn: Comprised the largest portion of the illegal animal trade at 29%.
  • Pangolin Scales: Accounted for 28%.
  • Elephant Ivory: Made up 15%.

Other Illicitly Traded Animals:

  • Eels (5%)
  • Crocodilians (5%)
  • Parrots and Cockatoos (2%)
  • Carnivores, Turtles and Tortoises, Snakes, and Seahorses.
Major Illegally Traded Plants
  • Cedars and other Sapindales: Including mahogany, holy wood, and Guiacum made up 47%.
  • Rosewoods: Accounted for 35%.
  • Agarwood and other Myrtales: Comprised 13%.

Commodities Seized (2015-2016)

  • Coral Pieces: Constituted 16% of all seizures.
  • Live Specimens: Made up 15%.
  • Medicines Made of Animal Products: Represented 10%.
Processing and Trafficking Trends
  • Traditionally, bones were processed in destination countries (Far East) but may now be processed closer to the source (Africa, Latin America, Asia).
  • Easier to traffic when processed (e.g., boiling bones into paste).
  • Uncertainty if processed products are for local use, export, or both.
  • Lion and Jaguar Bones: Increasingly substituted for tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine.
Tracking Progress on SDG Target 15.7
  • New Indicator Introduced (2024): To track progress in stopping illegal wildlife trafficking.
  • Rising Illegal Trade: The proportion of illegal wildlife trade compared to all wildlife trade has increased since 2017.
  • Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic: Wildlife seizures peaked at 1.4-1.9% of global trade (2020-2021), up from 0.5-1.1% in previous years.
  • SDG Target 15.7: Current trends suggest the world is not on track to meet the target by 2030.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
  • Established: 1997.
  • Renamed: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2002.

Functions:

  • Acts as the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.
  • Combines the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) and the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division of the United Nations Office at Vienna.

Factors Responsible for Wildlife Crime

Involvement of Organized Crime
  • Organized Crime Groups: Engage in elephant and tiger poaching, illegal fishing, and logging.
  • Remote Operations: Utilize power relationships, corruption, illicit firearms, and money-laundering.
  • Specialized Roles: Involved in export, import, brokering, storage, breeding, and interfacing with processors throughout the trade chain.
Economic and Social Drivers
  • Economic Necessity: Many poor individuals partake in wildlife crime to make ends meet.
  • Crop and Livestock Protection: Desperation to protect agricultural resources from wildlife leads to poaching.
Market Dynamics
  • Adaptation to Legal Decline: Illegal traders invent new uses for products as legal markets decline.
  • Demand for Scarcity: Luxury items like rare animals and endangered species trophies become more valuable as they become scarcer, driving illegal market demand.
Corruption and Legal Challenges
  • Corruption: Undermines efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, from bribery at inspection points to high-level influence on legal decisions.
  • Legislative Gaps: Although laws exist to combat corruption with strong investigative powers, prosecution of wildlife trafficking organizers under such laws is rare.
Cultural Factors
  • Cultural Practices: In some regions, poaching is part of cultural identity. For instance, in the Central African Republic, elephant hunting symbolizes bravery and manhood and is a generational practice.

Impacts of Wildlife Crime and Trafficking

Biodiversity and Ecological Impacts
  • Biodiversity Degradation: Leads to population reductions and extinction threats, affecting species diversity and ecosystem functioning.
  • Ecological Imbalance: Overexploitation causes sex-ratio imbalances and slowed reproduction rates.
  • Disturbance of Species Interdependencies: Trafficking disrupts essential ecological functions such as the food chain and food web.
  • Invasive Species: Illegal trade can introduce non-native species, harming native ecosystems and natural resources.
Socio-Economic Impacts
  • Undermines Nature’s Benefits: Impacts food, medicine, energy, and cultural values.
  • Economic Losses: A World Bank study estimated global economic losses from illegal wildlife trade at USD 1–2 trillion per year.
  • Business Harm: Increases costs and losses for businesses in the legal wildlife trade and related services.
  • Unfair Competition: Reduces resource access, damages reputations, and incurs extra legality verification costs.
  • Disease Transmission Risks: Poses significant threats to humans, animals, and natural ecosystems.
Law and Order
  • Threats to Law Enforcement: Police, customs officials, and wildlife rangers face harassment, violence, and loss of life from poachers.
  • Undermines Rule of Law: Weakens natural resource management and criminal justice responses.
  • Corruption and Money Laundering: Compromises legislation and political stability, with limited financial investigations.
  • Government Revenue Losses: Evades legal harvest fees, taxes, and tourism income, causing significant revenue losses in source countries.
  • Increased Enforcement Costs: Wildlife crimes drive up government spending on conservation, law enforcement, and criminal justice globally.

Measures to Effectively Reduce Wildlife Crime

Legal Measures
  • Demand Reduction: Implement laws that make it illegal to possess or trade goods derived from illegally obtained wildlife.
    • Example: Banning ivory products to discourage elephant poaching.
  • Stricter Law Enforcement: Ensure rigorous enforcement of existing laws like the Environmental Protection Act (1986) in India.
  • Effective Penalties: Implement strong penalties for violations of wildlife protection laws to deter offenders.
Resource Allocation
  • Improved Resource Management: Allocate and manage funds more effectively to directly support wildlife protection agencies such as park rangers and anti-poaching units.
  • Community Involvement: Engage local communities in conservation efforts and provide financial incentives to encourage their participation in preventing wildlife crime.
Public Awareness and Education
  • Awareness Campaigns: Raise public awareness about the consequences of wildlife trafficking through educational campaigns.
  • Education on Wildlife Value: Educate citizens about the ecological and economic value of wildlife and the detrimental effects of consuming illegal wildlife products.
  • Encouraging Reporting: Foster a sense of responsibility among individuals to report suspicious activities to authorities.

-Source: Down To Earth



Context:

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) loses its authority to arrest an accused once a special court takes cognisance of a chargesheet filed under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). This judgment restricts the ED’s power to execute arrests and underscores the importance of protecting personal liberty.

Relevance:

GS II: Polity and Governance

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Recent Supreme Court Ruling on PMLA
  2. Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002
  3. Recent Changes Made Under the PMLA

Recent Supreme Court Ruling on PMLA

Origin of the Judgment:

  • The ruling originated from an appeal by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) against a Punjab and Haryana High Court decision that denied anticipatory bail.

Key Issues Examined:

  • Whether an accused can seek bail under the regular provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
  • If so, whether the bail application must also meet the twin conditions under Section 45 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).
  • Consideration of whether an accused not arrested during the PMLA investigation must meet stringent PMLA bail conditions upon appearing in court after a summons or warrant.
Supreme Court Observations:

Status of Accused Appearing on Summons:

  • An accused who appears before a special court in response to a summons is not considered in custody and thus does not need to apply for bail under the stringent PMLA conditions.

ED’s Custody Application:

  • The ED must file a separate application to seek custody of the accused after they appear in court, providing specific reasons for the need for custodial interrogation.

Protection of Personal Liberty:

  • This ruling underscores the protection of the fundamental right to personal liberty.

Surety and Bonds:

  • The special court can require the accused to provide surety or bonds as per Section 88 of the CrPC, which is not equivalent to granting bail under PMLA’s stringent conditions.

Procedure for Non-appearance:

  • If an accused fails to appear despite being summoned, the court can first issue a bailable warrant. If non-appearance continues, a non-bailable warrant can be issued.

ED’s Arrest Powers:

  • The ED retains the authority to arrest individuals not named as accused in the initial PMLA complaint, provided proper arrest procedures under Section 19 of the PMLA are followed.
Twin Conditions of Bail Under PMLA

Under Section 45 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the following twin conditions must be met for an accused to be granted bail:

Burden of Proving Innocence:

  • The accused must demonstrate their innocence to the court. This means the burden of proof rests on the accused to show that there are reasonable grounds to believe they are not guilty of the offense they are charged with.

Ensuring No Offences While on Bail:

  • The accused must convince the court that they will not commit any offense while out on bail. This requires a strong assurance to the judge that the accused will not engage in any criminal activity if released.

Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002

  • According to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) 2002, Money laundering is concealing or disguising the identity of illegally obtained proceeds so that they appear to have originated from legitimate sources.
    •  It is frequently a component of other, much more serious, crimes such as drug trafficking, robbery or extortion.
  • Money laundering is punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 7 years and Fine under the PMLA.
  • The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is responsible for investigating offences under the PMLA.
  • The Financial Intelligence Unit – India (FIU-IND) is the national agency that receives, processes, analyses and disseminates information related to suspect financial transactions.
  • After hearing the application, a special court (designated under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act PMLA, 2002) may declare an individual as a fugitive economic offender and also confiscate properties which are proceeds of crime, Benami properties and any other property, in India or abroad.
  • The authorities under the PMLA, 2002 will exercise powers given to them under the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act.
    • These powers will be similar to those of a civil court, including the search of persons in possession of records or proceeds of crime, the search of premises on the belief that a person is an FEO and seizure of documents.

Recent Changes Made Under the PMLA

The Indian government has made several changes to the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act (PMLA) to plug loopholes and comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regulations. Some of the key changes are:

  • More disclosures for non-governmental organizations by reporting entities like financial institutions, banking companies, or intermediaries.
  • Definition of “politically exposed persons” (PEPs) as individuals who have been entrusted with prominent public functions by a foreign country, which brings uniformity with a 2008 Reserve Bank of India (RBI) circular for Know Your Customer (KYC) norms and anti-money laundering standards for banks and financial institutions.
  • Inclusion of practicing chartered accountants, company secretaries, and cost and works accountants carrying out financial transactions on behalf of their clients under the ambit of the money laundering law.
  • Widening the list of non-banking reporting entities to allow 22 financial entities like Amazon Pay (India) Pvt. Ltd, Aditya Birla Housing Finance Ltd, and IIFL Finance Ltd. to verify the identity of their customers via Aadhaar under the ambit of the money laundering law.

The financial transactions covered under the money laundering law include buying and selling of any immovable property, managing client money, securities, or other assets, management of bank, savings, or securities accounts, organization of contributions for the creation, operation, or management of companies, creation, operation, or management of companies, limited liability partnerships, or trusts, and buying and selling of business entities.

-Source: The Hindu



Context:

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is contemplating revisions to the Graduate Route Visa (GRV) scheme, intending to restrict visas to the most outstanding international students. This proposal aims to decrease the overall number of international students in the UK. The changes particularly target education recruitment agents accused of providing misleading information to UK colleges and authorities.

Relevance:

GS II: International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Graduate Route Visa (GRV) Scheme
  2. Impact of Restricting the Graduate Route Visa (GRV) Scheme

Graduate Route Visa (GRV) Scheme

Introduction and Purpose:

  • Introduced by the UK government in July 2021, the Graduate Route Visa (GRV) is designed for international students.
  • It allows graduates who have completed a degree at a UK higher education institution to stay in the UK for up to two years post-graduation to work or look for work.
  • PhD graduates can stay for up to three years.

Eligibility:

  • Open to international students who have successfully completed an undergraduate degree or higher at a Higher Education Provider with a track record of compliance.
  • Applicants must hold a valid Tier 4 or Student visa at the time of application.
  • The Tier 4 visa is specifically for international students studying in the UK.

Benefits:

  • No job offer is required to apply, providing graduates the flexibility to gain work experience.
  • The visa allows graduates to extend their stay in the UK, explore employment opportunities, and potentially secure a work visa with sponsorship from an employer.
  • It supports the ambitions of students, particularly from India, who wish to settle and work in the UK.
  • Families can accompany the GRV holder if they meet certain criteria.
  • Popularity of the UK as a Study Destination Among Indians

Significant Increase in Student Visas:

  • Indians represent the largest community of international students in the UK.
  • Between June 2022 and June 2023, the UK Home Office reported a 54% increase in student visas issued to Indian nationals.
  • Since June 2019, the number of visas granted to Indian students has increased seven-fold.
  • The GRV scheme enhances the appeal of studying in the UK by offering a clear pathway to employment and potential long-term settlement, making it particularly attractive to Indian students.

Impact of Restricting the Graduate Route Visa (GRV) Scheme

Potential Decline in International Students:

  • Experts suggest that restricting the GRV scheme could significantly decrease the number of international students choosing the UK for their studies. The uncertainty regarding post-graduation opportunities and long-term stay options would make the UK a less attractive destination.

Effect on Average Students:

  • Limiting the GRV to only the top-tier students would adversely impact the prospects of average students who seek to study in the UK. This move could deter a large segment of the student population that contributes to the diversity and financial health of UK universities .

Financial Impact on Universities:

  • According to a study by the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the continuation of the GRV scheme is crucial for UK universities to offset financial losses from domestic sources. Restricting the GRV could exacerbate financial strains on these institutions .

Competitive Disadvantage:

  • Experts believe that reducing the post-study work offer would make the UK less appealing compared to other countries, pushing international students towards destinations that offer more stable post-graduation opportunities, such as Canada and Australia.
  • The UK, which had been gaining traction as an alternative study destination amid restrictions in other countries, may lose this advantage if the GRV scheme is curtailed .

Impact on Indian Students:

  • Indian students, who make up roughly 42% of GRV holders, would be significantly impacted by any changes to the scheme. Between 2021 and 2023, Indians accounted for 89,200 visas, highlighting their substantial presence and reliance on the GRV for post-study opportunities.

-Source: Indian Express



Context:

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has intensified its scrutiny of Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) and gold loan lenders, urging them to adhere strictly to regulatory norms during lending practices. This move aims to bolster regulatory control and ensure compliance within the sector. The RBI’s recent actions include banning IIFL Finance from issuing fresh gold loans due to violations of lending norms, highlighting the central bank’s commitment to enforcing regulations and maintaining financial stability.

Relevance:

GS III: Indian Economy

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Increased RBI Scrutiny of NBFCs
  2. Impact of RBI Scrutiny on NBFCs
  3. What are NBFCs?

Increased RBI Scrutiny of NBFCs

  • The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has intensified its examination of Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) following the discovery of regulatory breaches among certain NBFCs.
  • In March, IIFL Finance faced a ban from the RBI on issuing new gold loans due to non-compliance with lending regulations.
RBI’s Regulations on Gold Loans
  • Loan-to-Value Ratio: Lenders must adhere to a maximum loan-to-value ratio of 75%, ensuring that the loan amount does not exceed 75% of the value of the gold pledged as collateral.
  • Cash Disbursement Limit: A maximum of ₹20,000 in cash can be disbursed to borrowers upon loan approval, with the remaining amount deposited directly into their bank accounts.
  • Auction Procedure: Lenders must conduct auctions of defaulted gold assets in a fair and transparent manner, accessible to borrowers.
Rationale for Strengthening Regulations
  • Rapid Growth in Gold Loan Portfolios: NBFCs have experienced a substantial increase in their gold loan portfolios, surging from approximately ₹35,000 crore in FY 2020 to about ₹1,31,000 crore by FY 2023.
  • Concerns of Regulatory Violations: The RBI may be apprehensive that the aggressive expansion of gold loans by NBFCs is accompanied by widespread non-compliance with lending regulations.
  • Potential Systemic Risks: As the gold loan industry expands rapidly, systemic risks may emerge if lending norms are not rigorously enforced.
Impact of RBI Scrutiny on NBFCs
  • Growth and Profitability Concerns: NBFCs anticipate that the RBI’s scrutiny of their lending practices will impede their growth trajectory and affect profitability.
  • Reduced Attractiveness of Gold Loans: The RBI’s directive limiting cash disbursements to ₹20,000 upon loan approval is expected to diminish the appeal of NBFC gold loans.
  • Revised Lending Strategies: Many NBFCs may need to adopt less aggressive lending approaches as the RBI rigorously enforces loan-to-value regulations.
  • Increased Operational Costs: Enhanced transparency in the auction process, aimed at making it more accessible to borrowers, could escalate operational expenses for NBFCs, potentially leading to higher borrowing rates.
  • Long-term Sustainability: Despite short-term challenges, the RBI contends that adherence to lending norms will foster a more sustainable gold loan industry, mitigating systemic risks over time.

What are NBFCs?

  • An NBFC, registered under the Companies Act, 1956, engages in various financial activities, including loans, securities investments, leasing, and insurance.
  • Excludes institutions primarily involved in agriculture, industry, goods trading, services, or immovable property trading.

Criteria for Registration:

  • A company is registered as an NBFC by the RBI if over 50% of its assets are financial assets and more than 50% of its income is derived from these financial assets.

Regulatory Authority:

  • The Reserve Bank, under the RBI Act 1934, has the authority to register, lay down policy, issue directions, inspect, regulate, supervise, and exercise surveillance over NBFCs.

Differences from Banks:

  • NBFCs cannot accept demand deposits from the public, unlike banks.
  • NBFCs are not part of the payment and settlement system, and they cannot issue cheques like banks.
  • Deposit insurance facilities, available to bank depositors, are not extended to NBFC depositors.

Funding:

  • NBFCs primarily finance operations through a combination of market borrowing and bank loans.

Financial Activities & Services Offered by NBFCs

  • Diverse Financial Services: NBFCs provide a wide range of financial products and services, including loans, credit facilities, asset financing, leasing, hire-purchase, and investment in securities.
  • Credit Provision to Underserved Sectors: NBFCs play a vital role in extending credit to various sectors, particularly underserved markets and small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) that may face challenges accessing traditional banking services.
  • Investment Portfolio Management: NBFCs engage in investment activities such as acquiring shares, stocks, bonds, debentures, and government securities, along with managing portfolios of stocks and shares.
  • Specialized Market Focus: Many NBFCs concentrate on niche markets and specific financial products, such as microfinance, infrastructure finance, housing finance, and insurance services.
  • Regulatory Oversight: In India, NBFCs operate under the regulatory framework established by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which outlines guidelines covering capital adequacy, risk management, and governance practices.
  • Complementary Role to Banks: NBFCs complement traditional banks by catering to segments underserved by banks, thereby contributing to the expansion of financial markets and enhancing financial inclusion efforts.

-Source: The Hindu



Context:

Recently, Google at the company’s annual developer conference, presented an early version of Project Astra.

Relevance:

Facts for Prelims

Project Astra Overview:

Origin:

  • Developed by Google, Project Astra is a cutting-edge multimodal AI agent.

Functionality:

  • Capable of real-time responses via text, video, images, and speech inputs.
  • Can interpret and respond to queries instantly, accessing relevant information.
  • Performs diverse tasks such as recognizing objects, remembering locations, and even evaluating computer code accuracy through a phone’s camera.

Versatility:

  • Compatibility beyond smartphones, demonstrated with smart glasses integration.
  • Emphasizes practicality over emotional expression in its voice.

Learning and Adaptation:

  • Possesses the ability to learn about its environment, striving for a human-assistant-like interaction.
Understanding Multimodal Model AI:

Definition:

  • A multimodal model in AI refers to a machine learning model capable of processing various forms of data, including images, videos, and text.

Example:

  • Google’s Gemini, a multimodal model, can convert a photo of cookies into a written recipe and vice versa.

Expanding Generative Capabilities:

  • These models enhance generative capabilities by integrating information from multiple sensory modes.
  • Multimodality equips AI with the capacity to comprehend and process diverse types of data.

-Source: The Hindu



Context:

Many Parkinson’s disease researchers are focused on reducing the prevalence of Synuclein alpha (SNCA) proteins in neurons as a therapeutic measure.

Relevance:

Facts for Prelims

Understanding Synuclein Alpha (SNCA) Proteins:

Nature of SNCA:

  • Found naturally in healthy cells, SNCA proteins are enigmatic entities.
  • Involvement in Neurodegenerative Diseases:
  • Infamous for their association with age-related neurodegenerative disorders.
Features of SNCA:

Abundance and Location:

  • Predominantly present in neurons, particularly in dopaminergic neurons, positioned near cell nuclei and neuronal junctions.

Structural Characteristics:

  • Capable of both misfolding and forming filamentous structures.
  • Unlike typical proteins with predictable three-dimensional structures, SNCA exhibits multifaceted folding patterns, leading to dysfunctional behavior when misfolded.
Aggregation Patterns:

SNCA exists in two aggregate forms within cells:

  • One disrupts cellular nucleus structural integrity.
  • The other aids in the degradation of misfolded proteins, crucial for cellular health.

Evolution Over Time:

  • Two distinct SNCA populations emerge within cells:
  • Filamentous structures resembling Lewy bodies, located around the nuclei.
  • Smaller clumps known as aggresomes, also near the nuclei, formed as a means of isolating misfolded proteins for subsequent processing.

-Source: Indian Express



Context:

Researchers investigating Sea Anemones (Actiniaria) in the Lakshadweep group of islands have documented a significant bleaching event among the anemones off Agatti island. This marks the first observed instance of sea anemone bleaching in the Lakshadweep islands.

Relevance:

Facts for Prelims

Understanding Sea Anemone Bleaching:

Definition:

  • Sea anemone bleaching refers to the phenomenon where these organisms lose their vibrant colors, turning white or pale due to the expulsion of symbiotic photosynthetic algae.

Causes:

  • Environmental stressors such as increased water temperatures, pollution, or alterations in ocean chemistry can trigger bleaching events.

Consequences:

  • Bleaching deprives sea anemones of their primary energy source, heightening susceptibility to diseases and elevating mortality rates.
Characteristics and Ecological Significance of Sea Anemones:

Physical Traits:

  • Aquatic animals characterized by soft bodies and the ability to sting.

Taxonomy and Habitat:

  • Belonging to the Cnidaria phylum, sea anemones inhabit ocean waters, especially in coastal tropical regions.

Ecological Relationships:

  • Form close associations with corals and live rocks, often forming symbiotic bonds with clownfish wherein they provide protection in exchange for food.

Ecological Role:

  • Vital contributors to benthic ecosystems, playing crucial biogeochemical roles in the lowest ecological zone of water bodies, typically involving sediments at the seafloor.
Geographical Information:

Location:

  • Agatti Island is situated approximately 459 km (248 nautical miles) west of Kochi (Kerala) and is positioned to the west of Kavaratti Island.

-Source: The Hindu


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